Republican Candidates and the Iraq War

Last week wasn’t a great week for Jeb Bush. There’s now a famous college student in Nevada who confronted Bush over his brother’s foreign policy, and the presidential hopeful has been forced repeatedly to try to reconcile family loyalty with the evolution of public opinion on the subject of the Iraq War. Vox’s Jonathan Allen wrote Monday about Jeb Bush’s “dynasty problem,” suggesting that if the former Florida governor isn’t willing to reject “his brother’s or his father’s policies, then that’s a huge constraint on his ability to govern.”

That’s not the only way to understand how events have unfolded, however. For one thing, J. Bush isn’t the only Republican candidate having problems with the Iraq question. Marco Rubio had a similarly difficult exchange last week in which he maintained that it was not a mistake for Bush to invade Iraq, but that it would be a mistake to do so with the information we have now. Or something. It wasn’t clear, which was the problem. Scott Walker has also tried to split the difference, stating that Bush had done what any leader would do, but that the war had ultimately been a mistake. In other words, this problem has some unique dimensions for Jeb Bush because of the sibling relationship, but it’s hardly his alone.

In the broader view, this isn’t just about Iraq or foreign policy but about the Republican Party and late regime politics. Just as the Democratic Party became fractured and without a clear purpose in the late 1970s as the New Deal era came to a close, the Republican Party is probably in a period of transition as the Reagan era comes to a close. This idea builds on the political time thesis offered in a number of works by APD scholar Stephen Skowronek (disclosure: Skowronek was one of my dissertation advisors). I’ve written about it here before, and I have an interest in interrogating and applying the theory. Are there clear ways we can assess the politics of different parts of the political time cycle, so as to test the implications of the theory? If late regime politics have distinct nomination dynamics, then we should be able to develop ways to compare with other points in the cycle – 1996 vs. 2016, perhaps – and with comparable points in other cycles, like the Democratic nomination in 1976.

The disjunctive phase of political time is the most challenging. Leaders come to power affiliated (through party) with the dominant regime, but the regime has disintegrated and is no longer applicable to the problems of the day. (These are two distinct problems that tend to coincide or even be related, but still, two different mechanisms.) In a 2011 book that updates the theory and includes some older essays, Skowronek compares Franklin Pierce and Jimmy Carter as disjunctive leaders. Both were political outsiders who shared a party label but little meaningful political experience with their respective reconstructive regimes (Jackson and FDR). And both were stuck in terms of how to address the problems of the day, with little room for maneuvering.

There are a number of signs of disjunction in the contemporary Republican Party – in the past year, the business community and the socially conservative/religious right parts of the coalition have found themselves at odds a few times. High profile conflict over the passage of religious freedom bills in states including Indiana has demonstrated that these two crucial components of the Republican regime aren’t always compatible.

Just as New Deal ideology offered little to address the inflation issues of the 1970s, the market ideology of the Reagan era doesn’t guide clearly to a solution to rising economic inequality, even as Republican candidates acknowledge that inequality is a problem. The passage of right to work laws, for example – these laws are widely perceived (and not entirely without reason) to depress wages for workers. Or should Republican leaders concerned with inequality focus on equality of opportunity? That points toward education policy, an area where Republicans are particularly conflicted.

The Iraq question has some different implications – the events leading up to the war, of course, are symbolically loaded in a way that makes it difficult for 2016 hopefuls to really challenge the war decision. To do so would be to reject a larger view about how to fight global terror and about America’s role in the world. In this sense, as Skowronek points out in an essay about George W. Bush titled “Leadership by Definition,” Bush’s “articulation” of the Reagan revolution was unique. In contrast with Van Buren, Polk, Taft, Truman, LBJ, and Bush’s own father, George W. ran for and was elected to two terms. Skowronek’s essay posits a couple of possible explanations. The politics of the years after September 11, 2001, in which dissent was questionable, patriotism was a dominant political trope, and rally effects lingered and recurred, partially accounts for this. Furthermore, the 21st century Republican Party is disciplined and organized in a way that makes it distinct in American history; it is possibly our first real programmatic, responsible party.

At the same time, the political dilemmas created by the Iraq War are not so different from what followed Polk’s expansionist adventures or the reverberations of Vietnam in the 1970s. Franklin Pierce’s impossible choices during the debates over the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act grew directly from the questions about slavery and territorial expansion that the Polk administration exacerbated and then failed to resolve. Jimmy Carter began his presidency with a controversial decision to pardon Vietnam draft-dodgers. More broadly, his leadership narrative of morality and religiosity – combined, sometimes awkwardly, with liberalism on race and gender issues – can be traced to responses to the questions about social order that were stirred up during the war.

The bottom line for leaders in this situation is that they can neither, to use Skowronek’s language, repudiate what’s come before, nor can they affirm those ideas and policies. Their political options are limited and fraught.

This might help to explain the phenomenon Seth Masket identified in his Pacific Standard piece yesterday: the Republican invisible primary has yet to converge on a frontrunner. Seth points out that many party elites have held back their endorsements, and suggests that a field full of “good but inexperienced” candidates may lie at the root of this. I’d suggest, however, that the reasons run deeper than the particular field of candidates. The crowded field is populated not just with candidates who represent different expressions of conservative ideology. The candidates – as their Iraq responses illustrate – each offer different combinations of Republican orthodoxy and updated views. The Party Decides concludes that party elites are concerned with both policy and electability. How to assess and combine these factors may be particularly elusive at this point in the political cycle.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.